Two Experiments in E-book Lending

One of the objections people have to e-readers like the Kindle is the restrictions the e-book format places on lending and re-selling books. While many authors and publishers might be just as happy if the used book market disappeared—particularly when they see the free review copies they sent out show up in the Amazon Marketplace—this is a legitimate objection. Digital rights management should not be so restrictive that owning a digital product is less convenient than owning a physical product. And I, for one, have discovered many favorite authors, whose books I now faithfully buy, at the public library.

So before e-readers can enjoy a majority market share, the manufacturers and the publishers have to solve the e-book lending problem.

eBookFling splash screen

Back in January, I received a pitch from Anna de Souza about eBookFling, a service that allows owners of Kindle and Nook books to swap them. eBookFling acts as a clearinghouse for the “lend to a friend” function built in to the devices. It’s a crowdsourced e-book library. The press release described it like this:

Business Model in Brief:

  1. Using a credit system as currency, the community provides a circle of eBook lending.
  2. Lenders earn 1 credit for every 5 books they list as available for lend and 1 credit earned for each successfully lent book. Borrowers create a queue of books they’d like to borrow.
  3. Lenders will be emailed or sent a text message when a Borrower selects their book and upon acceptance, they will have a set time to complete the transaction through Amazon.com or BarnesAndNoble.com with eBookFling verifying the transaction and alerting the requester that their book is ready to download. The Borrower will then have one point deducted from their account which is given to the Lender to spend on a rental for him/herself.
  4. The borrower may read the book for 14 days on the device they’ve downloaded to (Kindle, Nook, Nook and Kindle apps on smart phones or apps on PC and MACs) upon which the book disappears from the borrower and is “returned” to the Lender’s device/phone/computer.

Even more interesting were the proposed talking points. Here’s the best one:

HOW ANGRY WILL THIS MAKE AMAZON, B&N and PUBLISHERS?

The initial reaction may be a negative. Publishers and authors will claim the lending feature is being abused and causing cannibalization of sales. Authors are already bending over backwards by giving away many of their backlist (older) books free in the Kindle & Nook stores as promotion for the author’s new release. From their perspective, now they’ll have to worry about making only half the sales on the new books too!? Plus, the 14-day lending period may be more than enough time to finish a short novelette, copy the recipes in a cookbook, or read that important chapter in a tech manual or how-to book; never needing to purchase.

It will be interesting to see whether there is, in fact, a negative reaction from publishers. We’ve already heard about HarperCollins’ daft attempt to restrict the number of times libraries can lend out e-books before they have to buy replacements. (Because the hardcover equivalent would wear out, you see. No, I am not kidding.)

But it’s ridiculous for publishers to gibber about “lost sales” from library users. The type of library user who would read the book once, return it, and have no further use for it, would never buy the book in any format. Some of us simply read too fast and too much to make it practical for us to buy all the casual fiction that passes our eyeballs.

But that’s also the kind of reader who may discover a new favorite author at the library and then buy a whole series of books—particularly on an e-reader, where they won’t take up physical space. So an attempt to interfere with eBookFling on the part of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or any of the publishers would be decidedly short-sighted. (I know, I know—it would not be the first time.)

Open Library screnshot

Apparently the Open Library initiative from Archive.org has also been around for a few months, but I just happened across the announcement today while looking up the link to their audio hosting service.

Internet Archive and Library Partners Develop Joint Collection of 80,000+ eBooks to Extend Traditional In-Library Lending Model

San Francisco, CA – Today, a group of libraries led by the Internet Archive announced a new, cooperative 80,000+ eBook lending collection of mostly 20th century books on OpenLibrary.org, a site where it’s already possible to read over 1 million eBooks without restriction. During a library visit, patrons with an OpenLibrary.org account can borrow any of these lendable eBooks using laptops, reading devices or library computers. This new twist on the traditional lending model could increase eBook use and revenue for publishers.

[…]

How it Works

Any OpenLibrary.org account holder can borrow up to 5 eBooks at a time, for up to 2 weeks. Books can only be borrowed by one person at a time. People can choose to borrow either an in-browser version (viewed using the Internet Archive’s BookReader web application), or a PDF or ePub version, managed by the free Adobe Digital Editions software. This new technology follows the lead of the Google eBookstore, which sells books from many publishers to be read using Google’s books-in-browsers technology. Readers can use laptops, library computers and tablet devices including the iPad.

What Participating Libraries Are Saying

The reasons for joining the initiative vary from library to library. Judy Russell, Dean of University Libraries at the University of Florida, said, “We have hundreds of books that are too brittle to circulate. This digitize-and-lend system allows us to provide access to these older books without endangering the physical copy.”

Digital lending also offers wider access to one-of-a-kind or rare books on specific topics such as family histories – popular with genealogists. This pooled collection will enable libraries like the Boston Public Library and the Allen County Public Library in Indiana to share their materials with genealogists around the state, the country and the world.

[…]

Libraries interested in partnering in this program should contact: info@archive.org.

The announcement mentions two publishers enthusiastically participating in this program, Cursor and OR Books. I confess to not having heard of either of them, but want to applaud them both. (Cursor turns out to be a fairly new venture by Richard Nash, with a first imprint called Red Lemonade and a forthcoming “social publishing” platform; OR looks cut from the same cloth, judging by its “about us” page.) Clearly both houses see the advantages of reaching new audiences through libraries.

And the libraries themselves see a way to give new life to books that had become too fragile to loan—and which are probably out of print, so buying a new copy for circulation is no longer a possibility. Yet more books that the publishers would never be able to sell, unless they now take the digital versions and make them available by POD—in which case, the library initiative may turn into a source of new revenue.

It’s time to quit treating libraries and their patrons like freeloaders. Libraries are some of the best advocates authors and publishers could possibly have—especially as bookstores disappear.

I Remember Borders…

borders-bookmark

I remember when Borders was a fabulous independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

When I arrived at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1989 to start graduate school, Borders seemed like heaven. The size of the Classics section was jaw-dropping. I did almost nothing to resist temptation, and spent  far too much of my fellowship money on books, then and thereafter. Not until moving to Berkeley was I so blessed with regard to local bookstores.

I was shocked and horrified in 1992 when I learned that Borders had been bought by Kmart. Kmart was cheap, mass-market, strip-mall, low-price, low-value, disposable goods. Borders was unique. It had style, personality, place. It was intellectual, scholarly, full of  rare academic books that wouldn’t be of the least interest to the average Kmart shopper, many of them imported.

But all that happened in the short term was that Borders moved from State Street to Liberty Street, to occupy a larger space and expand its music collection. It was just as good a place to shop for books on Greek tragedy.

I visited my parents in Ohio and found a Borders in a strip mall. It didn’t much resemble the Borders in Ann Arbor. It had a coffee shop in it. And a lot of books on the best-seller list.

I left Ann Arbor and moved to England in 1994. When I came to San Francisco in 1998, I found a Borders in Union Square.

It had a coffee shop.

Apart from that, nothing much distinguished it from Waterstones, the big chain in the UK. (Well, they make paperbacks in a slightly different size there. And they charge more money for them.) It wasn’t half as interesting as Black Oak, or Moe’s, or Cody’s, or Pegasus, or the Other Change of Hobbit, or any of the independents in Berkeley.

Most of which are closed now.

But as a place to meet people, and for selection, the Borders in Emeryville is vastly superior to the Barnes & Noble here in El Cerrito. Better seating. More power outlets. Free Wi-Fi. Definitely more books, though I confess that when I buy books locally, I most often buy them used, and I’m as guilty of buying from Amazon as the next person. The coffee shop is usually busy; the store itself, less so.

Now Borders is preparing to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. 200 stores are expected to close immediately, with more likely to follow.

I wonder what would have happened if they’d stayed on State Street and stayed independent? Would they have been squeezed out the way Cody’s and Black Oak were? Would it just have been someone else whose overextended chain of book superstores was floundering now? It’s doubtful Kmart could have taken Waldenbooks as far as Borders got without help from Borders. Would Barnes & Noble now be tottering unopposed throughout the nation’s strip malls? (Though not yet on the verge of bankruptcy, Barnes & Noble floated the idea of putting itself on the market in 2010.)

I will grieve  if the Borders where I like to meet clients closes. But I grieve more for the Borders of my memory, that catered so spectacularly to the needs of local customers.

Does Competition for Publishers Make a Good Market for Ghostwriters?

The Business of Art, by Ellen Cushing

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a reporter for the East Bay Express, a free weekly paper here in the Bay Area. The reporter, a fellow Brown graduate, was writing about careers for creative people.

The Business of Art, by Ellen Cushing
This article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of the East Bay Express

The article, titled “The Business of Art”, focuses mainly on how hard it is to make a living as an artist and how little most art schools do to prepare students to find work. I stand by my quote: ghostwriting provides a more reliable income than writing for magazines or pitching your work to agents and publishers. There’s that old joke: “The difference between a full-time writer and a large pizza is that the pizza can feed a family of four.”

I warn my clients that not many authors make a significant income from book sales. That’s not because I want to drive them off, but because I want them to have realistic expectations. There are many ways besides a six-figure advance and getting on the New York Times best-seller list to measure a book’s success. And many non-fiction books bring their authors considerable indirect revenue by boosting their consulting and speaking businesses.

But any book published today is competing for attention with a shockingly large number of other new books. (It’s hard  to be quite sure just how many, but Bowker reported 764,448 self-published books and 288,355 traditionally published books in 2009.) Though most of these books are not real competition—they are in the wrong genre, or of laughably poor quality, or only produced for family  members—the sheer number of them creates a lot of noise against which you have to make your book marketing signal stand out.

So will all that competition drive hordes of young to become ghostwriters instead of novelists? My guess is, “probably not.” Ghostwriting is definitely more popular as a career than it used to be, but it requires one skill that’s exactly the opposite of the one aspiring Hemingways and Byatts are trying to develop. You have to subsume your own style and personality into that of your client. It’s a better job for a beat reporter than for a columnist. While it’s a highly creative activity, it’s more like translation than like original writing.

Young artists, as I remember from being one, are often taught (by peers, movies, literature, and probably something hormonal) that being an artist involves certain behaviors and personality traits, most of them highly irritating to other people, and all of them egocentric. None of these are useful to a career as a ghostwriter. (They probably aren’t useful to any career, which may be why there’s a stereotype of a starving artist.) Ghostwriters are often legally constrained from walking around saying “Look at me! I’m so talented! See what I did!”

However, if you do have the temperament to become a ghostwriter, and an interest in it, I highly recommend you sign up for Claudia Suzanne’s Ghostwriter Certification Classes. Claudia has ghostwritten more than 100 books and has been teaching others to do so for years, and she’s brilliant. (And no, I don’t get any kickbacks for saying that.)

For many artists, it’s likely to be easier to find an ordinary day job than to retool as a commercial whatever. But don’t rule it out entirely—you might find you enjoy it if you try.

It’s National Punctuation Day!

Today, September 24th, is National Punctuation Day. My colleague Jeff Rubin founded National Punctuation Day “to draw attention to the importance of proper punctuation. It’s a day for educators, parents, and librarians — people who are interested in teaching and promoting good writing skills to their students and their children. It’s also a day to remind business people that they are often judged by how they present themselves.”

No natural-born pedant can object to such a cause.

What I do object to, having seen Jeff present the grown-up version of the Punctuation Playtime show he does for kids, is the slavish devotion to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and the refusal to acknowledge that once you get out of grade school, a lot of what we once thought of as “grammar rules” turn out to be style questions that depend on whether you’re following the Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, or another set of guidelines for how to handle everything from serial commas to apostrophes with the plural “s.”

And let’s not forget that different English-speaking nations have different standards for punctuation. It’s not just that the British use inverted commas instead of quotation marks: they handle commas and apostrophes differently than Americans do. (They also have a habit of saying “different to,” instead of “different from,” but I’m told that’s incorrect even in the UK, no matter how common it is.)

Strunk and White is great for getting you through high school and through basic business communications, but if you’re going to go into the business of communications, you’ll need to invest in a few more style guides, or at least inquire into which one your company bases its house style on.

Meanwhile, for a nuanced approach to these pesky questions of usage, I recommend listening to Grammar Girl’s Quick & Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

   

Should You Start Your Own POD Bookstore?

On October 12, 2008, Paula B from The Writing Show published an episode about Print-on-Demand Technologies hosted by Ricardo from Amigo Audio (known to me from his insightful contributions to the For Immediate Release podcast). Ricardo talked about buying your own printing press in order to start a bookstore that could provide thousands of titles without needing acres of shelf space.

The printing press, in this case, would be one of two devices, either of them smaller than the HP Indigo printers used by many POD houses and the new MagCloud services. The first is Instabook Maker, which when assembled is 7 feet long, 3 feet high, and 2.5 feet deep.

Instabook Maker III

The second is the Espresso Book Machine from On Demand Books. The new 2.0 version is 3.8 feet wide, 2.7 feet deep, and 4.5 feet high.

Either of these could fit in a good-sized office or a modest-sized storefront. (Ricardo even talks about the possibility of installing such a press in a van and creating a new, improved bookmobile.)

When listening to Ricardo’s recording, I had a hard time imagining myself, or most of the authors I work with, wanting to start a bookstore. Devices like this do have the potential to give independent bookstores—a dying breed—an edge they haven’t had before and an opportunity to make a wider range of books available to their customers, including titles that have now gone out of print. But most non-fiction authors don’t aspire to running a bookstore or even a printing press. Come to that, I don’t know any novelists or poets who do, either. In fact, most independent publishers have someone else do their printing.

Then there’s the caveat that even if the quality of the paper, printing, and binding do in fact stack up to those of commercially published books, producing a professional-looking book requires good design and good editing in addition to the correct technology.

And if you want to be able to reprint books from other authors and publishers, there has to be some kind of arrangement about rights and royalties, which could get complicated.

But then I got my October Michigan Today, and what should be in it but an article about an Espresso Book Machine recently installed in the Ugli? (Excuse me, the Shapiro Undergraduate Library. But when I was in gradual school at U-M in the early 1990s, we all thought “Ugli” was only too appropriate.) U-M was one of the first libraries to get involved in digitizing books as part of the controversial Google Book Search project, so it’s not surprising they should be quick to adopt other new technologies.

The Espresso Book Machine makes perfect sense as an investment for a research library. Academic books tend to have small print runs and to go out of print quickly, but those out-of-print books remain important for scholars. U-M is a research university famed for its library collections. They even have a papyrology collection; I worked there one summer. (Yeah, I know, you thought U-M was all about football. I was in Ann Arbor for 5 years and never went to a single game.) And libraries only need a few copies of any given title, but they need to restock them due to wear and tear.

So when I read the article and watched the video, I thought “Now that is really cool.”

Espresso Book Machine

Do I want to open a bookstore? No. And I don’t think either Instabook or Espresso is likely to be a good investment for anyone who wants to print large runs of single books. Nor is owning such a device enough to make you a publisher (assuming you can afford one, and the prices are such that you’d better be independently wealthy, a large enterprise, or have VC backing). But the potential really is tremendous, if the intellectual property issues can be worked out.

Jeff Bezos Explains Amazon’s Booksurge Move at BEA 2008

Most of Jeff Bezos’ session at this year’s Book Expo America amounted to an extended sales pitch for the Kindle and Amazon’s plans to get every book in or out of print digitized into Kindle format. This was actually pretty interesting, even though it wasn’t the reason I was listening to the podcast. It did make me see the appeal of the Kindle, though Bezos did not address the real problem facing any such device: you can’t “rip” your existing library of books onto your Kindle the way you can rip your CD collection onto your iPod. That makes replacing your print books with Kindle books prohibitively expensive—at least for compulsive readers like me, who can sell five grocery bags full of books to the local used-book store and still have overflowing shelves. Scanning printed books is a clumsy, time-consuming process that simply isn’t feasible for consumers today, and that’s a serious obstacle to widespread uptake of the Kindle.

But I digress. The reason I wanted to hear the presentation by, and interview with, Jeff Bezos was that I wanted to know more about Amazon’s recent move to insist that all their POD authors use BookSurge for fulfillment. Amazon owns BookSurge, so the move looked not merely self-serving but downright monopolistic to competing POD houses.

I have nothing against BookSurge. One of my clients has been using them since before Amazon bought the company, and while they aren’t perfect, they produce quality books for a fairly low set-up fee. Or, at least, it was low by comparison with AuthorHouse (then First Books) and its competitors at the time. And in 2003, at least, BookSurge was able to offer services that AuthorHouse couldn’t, namely including a color insert section for some critical illustrations.

Since then, companies like Lulu have drastically undercut BookSurge, and the differences in what an author has to pay are one reason for authors to object to Amazon’s decision. There are plenty of others, all with varying degrees of validity. And Amazon’s argument that printing all POD books at BookSurge made distribution easier seemed weak.

Yet it wasn’t at all difficult for Bezos to make a clear argument in favor of the move in his discussion with Chris Anderson at BEA. (Skip to 42:27 in the recording if you want to bypass the Kindle eulogy.)

If you’re going to pioneer something, you are going to create some controversy from time to time, and you have to be willing to be misunderstood. You have to be sure feel good about what you’re doing, and if you don’t, you can go back and course-correct. But if you’re simple-minded about the customer experience, that usually keeps you on the right side of that line… Even small things that we have done that people expect and later find helpful, have initially caused controversy…

Modern Print-on-Demand printers can print and bind a complete book in two hours. In our own fulfillment centers, we have millions of traditionally-printed books. They’re on shelves and in pallets in cartons, ready to be shipped out to customers. Latency for shipping these books is very short, and transportation cost is critically important to us. If somebody orders two books—and most orders are for more than two units—it basically costs us twice as much to transport two books if we have to send them in two separate boxes as it does if we can marry them together. [We have] things like Amazon Prime, where we make two-day shipping free, and things like Super Saver Shipping, where we make shipping free if you order $25, and that $25 [minimum] often gets people to order two items…

Very few books in a demand sense are POD books. Most books are traditional books that we sell. You probably ordered a traditional book and a Print-on-Demand book if you ordered a Print-on Demand book. So we want to marry those things in one box. We can save a lot of money by doing that, we can get the product to customers faster, we can pass on the savings to customers in the form of lower prices, and that’s a great customer experience. But it does require that the book be printed, if it’s a POD book, in our fulfillment center. That’s going to make some people unhappy…

System-wide, it does not make sense to print a POD book anywhere but in our fulfillment center…If you print it somewhere else, to get it in a single box, you gotta cross-ship that book to us, which is a delay, and we’re going to ship it to you tomorrow instead of today. That’s a bad customer experience.

So yes, it’s definitely to Amazon’s benefit to have all POD authors use BookSurge. The specifics of BookLocker’s class action suit against Amazon make it clear that Amazon has some less-than-altruistic motives. No one seems to be clear yet on what additional costs (if any) will be passed on to authors who use POD houses that agree to Amazon’s terms and use BookSurge for printing any books sold through Amazon. It’s possible that customers of Lightning Source or Lulu or Xlibris might have to pay an “Amazon surcharge” of some kind. But I doubt it will be as high as the set-up fee paid by BookSurge customers, because the files Amazon gets from these companies will already be set up and ready to be printed.

Given the way people shop at Amazon, printing books at Amazon’s fulfillment house really is to the customer’s benefit. Despite probable additional charges, it may well prove to benefit the authors of POD books. It might even benefit the other POD houses, because it saves them shipping costs and wear and tear on their equipment. It’s certainly better for anyone than if Amazon refused to carry POD books because the shipping costs are too high.

BookLocker, Lulu, and Lightning Source will continue to make the bulk of their money from the additional services they offer to their authors. It’s worth remembering that traditional publishers don’t have that added source of income, and all bookstores—not just Amazon—have required them to accept lousy terms since the 1930s.

The Wrong Kind of Ghostwriting

This is the kind of thing that gives ghostwriters a bad name: Merck wrote the studies for Vioxx and persuaded (or bribed) prominent doctors to sign them.

Perhaps if someone outside Merck had actually conducted and written the studies, the drug wouldn’t have been released unless it was safe, and Merck would have been spared its eventual recall.

There are times when it really does matter whether the person whose name is on a document is the one who wrote it. And there are times when the identity of the ghostwriter matters more than the identity of the author. If obscure doctors had conducted the Vioxx study and more prominent doctors had signed it, this would not have been much different from the common scientific practice of having the graduate students do all the work and the professor get top billing on the publication. It’s the fact that it was Merck’s employees who wrote the studies that invalidates the results.

Time to Get Your Bond Girl Handbook

fEmpowerment Book CoverIt’s here at last: fEmpowerment: A Guide to Unleashing Your Inner Bond Girl, by Sandy Shepard (a.k.a. Solitaire). And me, but mostly her. We started working on this book in 2005 and built it up out of posts on her Double Oh! Productions blog. You can order it from the Be a Bond Girl website or the usual sources (like Amazon).

Why Bond Girls?

Because Sandy takes them as a model for a life with more passion, enjoyment, fun, and fulfillment than many of us have right now. You don’t have to be a fan of the James Bond films to get something out of this book. I was a little skeptical about it, myself, but in the course of editing it, I learned a lot of things that have helped with my relationships. (No pole dancing classes for me, though.) Sandy takes a fun, practical, and very specific approach to getting rid of anything that doesn’t work for you and putting some adventure back in your life.

Who Should Buy This Book?

Women, especially if you

  1. Have become so powerful and successful in your career that you find yourself isolated on a lonely mountaintop
  2. Don’t really know what you want or like because you’ve been too busy trying to fit in
  3. Want to have more fun at work, at home, with friends, and with your “James.”

Men, especially if

  1. Your spouse or girlfriend fits into any category above
  2. You aspire to live the James Bond lifestyle yourself.

And remember: no one is ever too old to be a Bond Grrl.

Disclosure

Naturally, since I helped write this book, I’m biased in favor of it. But I don’t make any money from sales of the book; I haven’t even set up an Amazon affiliate link in this post.

Dan Poynter on YouTube (and elsewhere)

Self-publishing guru Dan Poynter, author of Writing NonfictionAmazon tracking link and The Self-Publishing Manual, makes his YouTube debut in a ten-minute video taken at one of his seminars. The video is not as enlightening as his books, but it does serve to introduce Dan as a person. I’ve never attended a live seminar, but I’ve heard Dan in teleseminars and I’ve read his books, and I definitely recommend them for anyone considering writing and publishing a book. He’s also been very helpful when I’ve contacted him with questions, even though he’s on the road almost all the time. That may be why his podcast never took off, though the first two episodes are worth hearing.

It appears that WordPress doesn’t want me to embed the video here, but you can watch the video at YouTube.

Hat tip to the Small Press Blog.

Steve Wozniak on Collabowriting

Rachel Metz’s August 24th Wired News interview with Steve Wozniak starts with his new book, IWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It.

I haven’t read the book, but was particularly interested in what Woz had to say about working with co-author Gina Smith. The process he described sounded very familiar: he recorded a series of anecdotes which she then combined into a chronological narrative, and the manuscript went back and forth from there, including a session where they read the entire thing aloud to make sure all of it was really in Wozniak’s voice.

You can play or download the file below. The book occupies approximately the first ten minutes. It’s a nice demonstration that ghostwriting for celebrities works the same way as ghostwriting for anyone else—though it pays better.